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Some veterans come home to find homelessness

Randal Yakey, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. –

PANAMA CITY — As the big orange ball begins to sink over St. Andrew Bay, the homeless begin to make their way back to the mission, veterans among them.

Thousands of veterans have come home from the Middle East conflicts that have raged into the 21st century, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. These warriors have been given parades and cheered in church auditoriums.

But, when night falls in Panama City, the darker side of that trip home can be found in wooded areas and in the Panama City Rescue Mission, which has been scorned and stigmatized by many in the community.

The Rev. Billy Fox sees the homeless veterans coming to his mission for food and — occasionally — shelter.

“It is war,” Fox said. “It takes a lot of the souls of men.”

Paul Abbott, a 40-year-old Army veteran, has been to war, has seen the horrors and has come back to Panama City, ending up in the mission on Sixth Street.

He once lived along Bayou George. His father and was in Vietnam and his grandfather fought under Gen. George Patton in World War II.

Most of his time was spent in Operation Desert Storm working heavy machinery and security.

“We went up that highway of death where the Iraqis were withdrawing,” Abbott said. “There were bodies out there in the desert. I mean it was total destruction.

“We just slaughtered those people,” he said. “They had nowhere to go. And I don’t apologize for it because that is what happens in war, but it is still a shame to see because they didn’t have a chance.”

After nine months, Abbott’s unit was sent back to the states.

“What most people don’t know is that we left millions or billions of dollars worth of equipment in the desert,” Abbott said, sitting with his small dog on his couch.

When he returned, he worked with heavy equipment, as he had when he was in the military. He was shot during a carjacking and even though he survived a war zone, home began to be a troublesome place, too.

“I started drinking a lot,” he said. “I got shot (near) the substation on MLK during a carjacking and after I became addicted to painkillers. I literally lost everything I had and was homeless.”


PTSD and the homeless

Though he has never seen combat himself, Fox said the soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars hold a special place in his heart.

“It has been long in the diagnosis to call it post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and it is still not well-treated,” Fox said.

Fox said he sees these kinds of people every day.

As of mid-2010, U.S. Veterans Affairs estimates there are 3,700 Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom veterans in its homeless-outreach programs. About 550 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have been treated in VA-connected residential programs.

Many choose to be homeless rather than subject their families to their problems.

“They tell me that they just had to leave for the safety of their family,” Fox continued. “They feel rejected, forgotten; not that they are. They feel that way.

“They have broken hearts …” he paused. “Broken minds. They don’t know how to release or even to heal. It’s hard for them to realize that by the grace of God they can heal.”


Ghosts don’t just go away

Charvis Satterwhite, 41, was a Navy medic during Operation Desert Storm, Desert Shield and served in Iraq.

He sat quietly during a recent interview, his hands shaking, flushed and sweaty, inside the Panama City Rescue Mission. He talked of how a Christian kid from Shelby, N.C., the son of a preacher man, got himself in such a mess that he ended up homeless and did time in jail. He never would have believed his life — unwinding like a ball of string — would became nightmare.

“I don’t know what happened to me,” he said.

Satterwhite initially loved being in the Navy. Travel and learning a skill he could build a future around seemed like a great adventure, until the dying started.

“It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t go away,” he said.

When he talked of what he has seen, he shook his head, tears welling up in his eyes. He said he wants to purge the vision of war in his head but isn’t sure how.

“I was on the hospital ship USNS Comfort,” he said “By being a corpsman we also had training with the Marines. I was a combat medic. I wasn’t expecting that kind of responsibility, saving peoples lives.”

Now he can’t help himself as, admittedly, his life has spiraled into an abyss.

“The goal I had for myself was that every guy I went there with I wanted to make sure I came home with,” Satterwhite said.

Previously, there was a longstanding VA rule that any undiagnosed illness used to establish eligibility for VA benefits must become apparent by the end of 2011 for returning service members from the wars in the Middle East. But that has changed and the date was pushed back to Dec. 31, 2016.

“The VA has been helping,” Satterwhite said. “They have medications and stuff. But, I started medicating myself. I have the background for it. I tried to forget. The drugs and alcohol helped me forget.”

Past faults caught up to Satterwhite. He was arrested this fall on an outstanding warrant and sent to jail.

“Shame,” Fox said. “We tried to help him.”


Accident started downward spiral

Charra, 30, sat in a restaurant, leaning on one arm as she talked of being homeless. She was a personnel officer in the Air Force and a graduate of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She hardly fit the profile of a homeless person.

“The day I graduated was the same day I was commissioned,” she said, stirring her Chinese food as she related her story in one of Panama City’s small restaurants along 23rd Street.

She was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and was at Tyndall Air Force Base during her last days of service.

“I went to ABM school and that is how I ended up at Tyndall,” Charra said. “I became a weapons officer.”

Charra, who asked to use only her nickname for this story, has a 5-year-old son from a previous marriage. She soon met the “love of her life.” They planned to be married.

“I joined the Reserves to go back to school and the exact opposite happened,” she said. “I was flying all the time.”

She was working, raising a child and preparing for a wedding.

But, her wedding day never came.

Her fiancé rode his motorcycle into an intersection in Oklahoma. He was struck by on oncoming vehicle and killed.

“I was scheduled to fly the next day and they didn’t want to take me off the flight,” Charra said with a frown. “I had a funeral to plan.”

A tear appeared in the corner of her eye as the Iraq war veteran said the death of her fiancé as her breaking point.

“A lady was making a left turn — you know, how you try to beat the yellow light — and she ran right into him and killed him instantly.”

She mourned the death, dwelling on the wedding they were planning, a family and a future destroyed in an instant.

“I was transferred into the inactive reserves,” she said.

The death of her fiancé and the pressures of her career, admittedly, became overwhelming. Charra said the trauma compounded the stress.

“They didn’t seem to care. It was the mission first, mission first,” she continued. “I felt I didn’t have support. That was my last day flying. I didn’t fly again.”

The spiral began.

“I had to identify the body,” she said.

She returned to Panama City.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “I never thought I would end up homeless. I grew up on the south side of Chicago.”

She eventually turned to Veterans Affairs for help. But, she admitted, it was hard asking for help.

“One part of their personality is so proud of what they did and who they served,” Fox said. “Then there is this other personality that says why did I have to go there and why did I have to do this and why isn’t it making the big difference I thought it would.

“I don’t think they trust the VA,” Fox continued. “The VA is doing some very good things. But they don’t trust that they are really going to treat them fairly.”

With the war over in Iraq, Fox said he thinks there will be more homeless veterans pouring into the system.

According to the 2011 supplement to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 67,495 veterans were homeless in the United States on a single night in January 2011 — a significant reduction from the 2010 single-night count of 76,329.

“It’s just not enough,” Fox said.

Fox expects to see additional veterans in the mission.

“When you have to kill another person in battle like that, and as honorable as it is and the valor it takes to do that, it is still soul-robbing,” Fox said.

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